By Jan de Weydenthal/Stoyanka Kancheva
Prague, 5 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Bulgarian parliament yesterday agreed to grant NATO aircraft use of Bulgaria's airspace for strikes against Yugoslavia.
The vote -- 154 to 83 -- followed a long and acrimonious debate. Outside the parliament building, thousands rallied for and against the decision.
The issue is sensitive because many Bulgarians feel a kinship with neighboring Slavic and Orthodox Serbs.
The issue has been equally sensitive in other countries of the region.
Last month, Romania's parliament voted to allow NATO aircraft to use airports on its territory for the operations, but there was considerable opposition.
Hungary, a new NATO member, has offered NATO unlimited use of its airfields. But the initial consensus has begun to weaken and the Socialists, the main opposition party, have called for a parliamentary debate.
The Czech Republic, another new NATO member, finds itself at odds with the alliance over Yugoslavia. Only a minority of the population -- 35 percent in a recent public opinion poll -- endorses the air strikes and the government itself appears hesitant to support NATO policies.
The parliamentary debate in Bulgaria reflected the whole spectrum of these sentiments, though in the end deputies seemed convinced that cooperation with the West would bring future benefits.
Opposition to granting NATO the right to use the airspace was led by the Socialist party of former communists.
Their leading representative, Alexander Lilov, was explicit:
"This Balkan war is illegal, ineffective and destabilizing (for the region). Bulgaria should clearly say it is against this Balkan war because Balkan problems will not be solved by military means."
Supporters of the measure said the air campaign was morally right and politically beneficial for Bulgaria. Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova put it clearly:
"Those who vote against (granting NATO access to Bulgaria's airspace), apart from the moral issue of silent complicity, will vote for prolonging the conflict and against a united Europe. Such a vote will erase Bulgaria from the economic and political map of Europe."
Lilov said a vote to grant NATO access would not necessarily lead to "a quick admission to NATO and the European Union." He warned that after the Balkan war is over, Bulgaria's case could well become forgotten, even possibly weakening its regional position.
But the argument of improving ties to an expanding and integrating Europe carried the day. This was admitted, however grudgingly, even by opponents of Bulgaria's potential involvement in the conflict.
Alexander Tomov, leader of the Euroleft group which voted against granting NATO air access, admitted as much when he said:
"Euroleft's ... opinion is that (Bulgaria) should preserve and maintain its European and Euro-Atlantic choices, though, at the same time, we think that (Bulgaria) should not become involved, directly or indirectly, in the war."
At the final count, the argument that backing NATO's policy offers Bulgaria better prospects for the future prevailed in Sofia, just as it has prevailed in other countries in Central Europe.